Peter Billingsley is best known for his role in 1983's A Christmas Story, in which he played Ralphie, the hapless kid who wants a BB gun for Christmas. But Billingsley, whose stints as a young actor also include playing a steroids-taking wannabe jock in an after-school special alongside a young Vince Vaughn, has continued to work in Hollywood, albeit often as a producer (his credits include The Break-Up and Iron Man). With Couples Retreat, a film written by friends Vaughn and Jon Favreau, he finally gets his turn in the director's chair.
"I always had an interest in getting behind the scenes," says Billingsley via phone from Bora Bora, where Couples Retreat was shot. "I grew up on sets since I was two and a half. I would stay on the sets and had an interest in what decisions were being made. [Christmas Story director] Bob Clark gave me advice. He told me to get in the editing room, so I did. That's how I got my apprenticeship. That was my film school."
Couples Retreat follows four very different couples as they head to a resort called Eden for some fun in the sun. Little do they realize that the package deal they've signed up for includes therapy sessions and spiritual workouts with the island's pretentious spiritual guru Marcel (Jean Reno). In one scene, the couples take a yoga class from a bikini-brief-wearing hunk who gets a little too comfy with the wives. While the scene is outrageous, it's well within the realm of possibility.
"Good comedy is the commitment to the absurd," says Billingsley. "The situation might be extreme, but the actors have to play it as if it's real. If the situation is funny like in a film with Chaplin or Keaton, to them it's life or death and that's what keeps you laughing."
That sensibility runs throughout the film. When Dave (Vaughn) and the guys break the rules and leave the island, they have to settle the score with resort coordinator Stanley (Peter Serafinowicz). So Dave challenges him to a Guitar Hero duel. And when they spend an afternoon swimming, they end up having to escape from a group of sharks. For Billingsley, directing Vaughn and Favreau, guys known for improvising on the set, wasn't that difficult.
"We prepare a lot," says Billingsley. "We very much are story first. So by the time we hit the set, everyone knew the script well. That said, sometimes my job was to get out of the way. We set up multiple cameras, so we wouldn't miss anything. We have them do what's on the page, but you add those gifted actors, they're comfortable going off the page as well. I just had to make sure not to cut too early."
Partners with Vaughn in his Wild West Picture Show Productions, Billingsley says he hopes there will be more directing jobs in the future, though he has nothing lined up right now. But the fact that he's kept his career going after a downturn in the '90s is no small feat.
"I had a great structure and foundation growing up," says Billingsley, who moved to Phoenix when he was in high school. "I had a great family that could keep the experience in perspective. acne and girls and everything. It wasn't what defined me growing up. I was able to get into producing, and I have great friends. That's been the difference."